Flower arranging, basket-weaving, Pilates for pensioners. As far as many politicians are concerned, adult and community learning (ACL) amounts to little more than a means by which taxpayers’ hard-earned cash is siphoned off to subsidise people’s hobbies. As if it needed saying, this is a crassly simplistic argument that fails to acknowledge the impact such providers have by offering new skills and qualifications to hundreds of thousands of learners each year.
Back in 2011, it was left to the FE and skills minister of the time, John Hayes, to fight the sector’s corner and protect the safeguarded £210 million ACL fund. On most policies – not least renewable energy and immigration – Hayes is known for expressing views beloved by those to the right of the Conservative Party. But Hayes instinctively understood the value of adult education – and was not afraid of standing up to the bean counters at the Treasury to protect it.
Today, natural allies in the Tory ranks for ACL providers are in short supply. There are many in Whitehall who view any form of provision with “community” in the title as an easy place to wield the axe. So it is high time for the ACL sector to move the battle to the ground the government has come to regard as its own: fiscal responsibility.
As Ian Nash explains, the benefits of community learning programmes are genuine and wide-ranging. In a pilot project taking place in Redbridge in north‑east London, doctors are prescribing education courses to try to help patients suffering from conditions such as depression and sleep disorders.
As Joni Cunningham, principal of Redbridge Institute, puts it: “You can see the personal benefits and the health and welfare cost savings in care homes that give the elderly learning activities that help them lead independent lives.”
The challenge is for the ACL sector to position itself as not on the margins of FE, but at the centre of a joined-up health and welfare service. As the submission ahead of the spending review by Holex, the body for ACL providers, points out: “It is obvious that, if you can’t read, you are more likely to need some form of state intervention through income support and you are more likely to have children who can’t read either, which in turn puts more pressure on the education system.”
But in addition to talking the talk, the onus is on ACL providers to come up with the evidence to prove that what they do has a real impact. As economist Tim Harford told adult learning body Niace’s conference on the subject last week, there have been just nine randomised trials on the impact of adult education in the past 22 years – and that’s across the whole world.
The sector needs to use the government’s language of skills, productivity and efficiency to fight its corner ahead of the spending review. And the harder the evidence it can draw upon to prove its effectiveness, the harder it will be for ministers to make further cuts.
This year there is no Hayes to make the case for adult and community learning; this time the sector will have to make the case for its own survival. And the stakes are higher than ever.